The value of technical education

Joanne Harper, Principal of UTC Reading talks about the importance of technical education for the future of the STEM sector

By Joanne Harper, Principal, UTC Reading

There has been a great deal of news commentary in recent months about the introduction of a new wave of grammar schools. Whilst I am not going to get into the debate as to whether grammar schools should be implemented, I would be disappointed if their opening in any way impacts on the progress being made by UTCs, which offer a clear route for young people. In my view it is essential that the public, and most importantly parents and teachers, are aware of the UTCs’ function and how it fits into the education system. UTCs provide a secondary education route that is led by a sponsor university and offers a solid academic education, with specialisation in technical and scientific subjects. Where it is different from the more traditional comprehensive or grammar school routes is that relationships with industry are considered to be an integral seam between education and preparing the student for the world of work. 

UTC Reading is a strong reflection of the success of these types of schools. Currently over 50% of our students are obtaining apprenticeships with our industry partners on leaving the UTC, rather than choosing to go on to university. I am proud to say that within a few years of opening, UTC Reading achieved an ‘outstanding’ rating from Ofsted I firmly believe that UTCs offer young people the option to take a technical route into their chosen vocation, rather than the traditional university route, which often leaves many students with degrees that don’t relate to the jobs they end up doing.

Baker Dearing Educational Trust recently published a report that looks at how well the current academic system prepares young people for jobs in the Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths sectors (STEM). It revealed that not enough is being done to equip young people with the skills required to go out and succeed in the professional world.

Nearly 60% of young people aged between 20 and 35 who work within the STEM sector felt that their school careers advice had failed them

One of the key issues raised in the report was that nearly 60% of young people aged between 20 and 35 who work within the STEM sector felt that their school careers advice had failed them. This is perhaps due to a lack of communication between education and industry, which means that career advisors may be struggling to articulate to students how subject choices translate into work. Unfortunately, the necessary engagement with employers doesn’t appear to be high-up enough on the list of priorities for schools, which essentially leaves many students on the back foot when making career decisions. Often a lack of understanding of the labour market within schools leads teachers to offer partisan advice to students, which is to follow the path they are familiar with i.e. the one they took. Yet this may well be an unfavourable path for the students’ career requirements.

Two thirds of the report’s participants felt that they hadn’t realised how their subject choice might affect their future career prospects when at school. As educators we should be preparing our students for their next steps into the world of work. It is not enough to simply impart knowledge. We also need to show students how and where to use it, which for a great deal of students could mean going on to an apprenticeship or employment rather than following a traditional academic route. It was also clear from the research that students are motivated and engaged if they can see how what they learn in the classroom can be applied to the world of work. Additionally, the report showed that there is a correlation between the usefulness of the subject in the real world and enjoyment of that subject. In my opinion there is a real need to outline the connection between chosen subjects and the workplace. UTCs are vital for providing this kind of introduction into industry and more should be done to ensure students know that this is a viable and by no means lesser option than a grammar or comprehensive education.

Educators at secondary level should be listening more closely to employers’ criteria for hiring

At the end of the day, educators at secondary level should be listening more closely to employers’ criteria for hiring. The overall consensus within many industry companies is that organisations are cautious to take on students who are not already prepared, as they will need to invest more money into training them. Educators need to put the focus on employability skills in order to instil a level of confidence within their students that makes employers want to give them a chance. The Head of Technical Excellence at Jaguar,  quoted in the report, stressed that the grades achieved in a subject are not as important as the ability to demonstrate the application of the subject. Ultimately, we as educators must look at the bigger picture and understand that we are a gateway between building our students’ knowledge and their subsequent employment. 

Going back to my opening remarks, I am concerned that a return to grammar schools could lead to technical education being bypassed or deemed less important than traditional education. It would be a worrying outcome if society associates bright students with a grammar school education, as the STEM industry would suffer drastically. We need bright students to consider all options. UTCs are proving to be a breeding ground for our future innovators and certainly have their place in the academic system. I worry that grammar schools will create segregation due to their selection criteria and to my earlier point that they do not necessarily cover topics that are relevant to the workplace. 

The debate around grammar schools has also attracted some unfavourable commentary around the quality of UTCs. While it is true that some have struggled to recruit and a small number have closed, this needs to be seen in the context of both the commercial realities of new start-ups, and the broader educational picture of national school performance.

Without a doubt, UTCs are helping to fill the skills gap. In my opinion we should offer choice and a tripartite system to students to cater for different needs and requirements. Comprehensive schools will suit some, grammar and UTCs will suit others. In my view the grammar school should only be introduced from the age of 14, in line with UTC admissions. This enables students to choose the option that would best suit their choice of GCSEs, their interests, and their potential career path.

Ultimately more embedded careers advice needs to be offered to students and we certainly need to develop parity between technical and academic education. Educators should have one goal in sight, which is to help our students make the best decision for their interests and career choices, whether that be access to a grammar school, the UTC or comprehensive schools.